WALLOPS ISLAND — Residents and visitors to the area will be treated to what should be a spectacular sight next week when NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility sends up the largest rocket ever launched at the facility.
In cooperation with its private-sector commercial partner Orbital Sciences, NASA is scheduled to launch an Antares rocket from its Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, just south of Assateague Island, on April 17 with a launch window open until April 19. The Antares, which is 133 feet tall and about 13 feet in diameter is the largest rocket ever launched from Wallops in its nearly 70-year history.
Small to medium-size rocket launches from Wallops several times a year are often visible in and around the resort area and across Worcester County and the Lower Shore, but the Antares launch is unique and should be visible across a much larger area, according to Wallops spokesman Keith Koehler this week.
“This is a very big rocket for us,” he said. “This is the largest vehicle we’ve ever launched at Wallops and it’s a relatively slow-moving rocket compared to some of the ones we’ve sent up in the past, meaning it will be visible longer, probable a full minute or more. It should be clearly visible in Ocean City and the Delaware beaches and the best estimates predict a visibility area from North Carolina to New York.”
Orbital Sciences Corporation is conducting the launch in cooperation with NASA and Wallops. The Antares launch tentatively set for April 17 at 5 p.m. is essentially a test flight for the vehicle. Orbital Sciences has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to launch rockets to send experiments and supplies to the International Space Station, a chore formerly handled by the Space Shuttle program. Koehler said Orbital will likely launch the Antares laden with supplies for the Space Station a couple of times a year in the future.
“This one will be going to the Space Station,” he said. “They’re in constant need of resupply and NASA has a contract with Orbital and another private company to send rockets with supplies to the Space Station.”
Orbital is scheduled to conduct two launches under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Space Act Agreement with NASA in 2013. In addition, Orbital will launch eight operational cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station using the Antares from Wallops from late 2013 to 2016, making the highly visible launch a regular fixture in and around the resort area.
Even before the launch, the Antares has already created a stir across Delmarva. Last year, the huge rocket was transported in pieces via flatbed truck to Wallops along highways across the peninsula. In late February, the Orbital and NASA conducted a “hot fire” of the rocket’s first-stage propulsion system, lighting up the sky in and around the Wallops facility.
Koehler said this week the typical marine notices will be sent out prior to the launch to clear private and commercial vessels from the ocean in and around the launch site. He said the relatively remote location of Wallops eliminates many of the public safety issues.
“The great thing about this is we’re launching over the ocean and away from populated areas,” he said. “The rocket will take a southeast trajectory and basically fly down the Atlantic corridor over the ocean, so there are a lot of advantages from a safety standpoint.”